PORTLAND — Players gathered around a giant flat-screen television mounted on the wall in the Trail Blazers locker room Sunday. Portland had just finished an emotional overtime victory, 123-120, over the Houston Rockets, and SportsCenter was on the screen. LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard and others stood watching their own highlights, as ESPN's Stan Verrett went play-by-play through the wild finish at the Moda Center.
On a chair across the room, Wesley Matthews sat upright, clearly exhausted. He scored 21 points and picked the pocket of Rockets guard Patrick Beverley on the final play of overtime to stop any chance at a game-tying three-pointer. When asked if the extra time victory was his kind of game, Matthews smiled.
"Yeah, it was," said Matthews, chuckling lightly to the crowd of reporters around him.
All of the games between Portland and Houston have been decided by seven points or less, with three going to overtime. Houston's victory on Friday saw a broken play and a friendly bounce give former D-League player Troy Daniels the game-winning shot with 11 seconds left in the final period. On Sunday, it was the Blazers' turn for payback.
With 30 seconds left in regulation and Portland trailing, 104-102, Jeremy Lin grabbed a rebound off a Nicolas Batum miss and went sprinting toward the sideline. Mo Williams tipped the ball out Lin's hands from behind, where Matthews scooped it up for a layup of his own. The shot bounced off the rim, and after a scrum in the corner for the ball, Lillard emerged victorious. The Blazer point guard dropped the ball off to Batum, whose skip pass lined Williams up for the go-ahead three.
"I just had to shoot it with confidence," Williams said. "I was struggling shooting the ball all day, but at that point, you've got to shoot it with confidence."
The dagger by the Blazers' backup point guard with 18 seconds left was the biggest of the game and perhaps of the entire series. Portland, up 2-0 after two road victories, was gut punched after losing its first game at home on Friday. Now, with a lead of 3-1 heading back to Houston, the long series seems remarkably shorter.
Both emotionally and physically, this has been the most draining series in the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs. Margins of victory and the room for error have been razor thin, with the final play of the game often standing as the deciding factor.
With Portland taking a series lead, it wasn't relief that was in the air after the game. While players stood around watching themselves eke out a playoff victory on the big screen, the calm demeanor of the team's veterans set the tone for the Portland locker room.
"Both teams are in the same spot," Batum said. "We've played a lot of minutes, and we're kind of tired. They've played a lot of minutes, and they're tired, too."
Starters in the series have racked up an incredible amount of playing time. Between the two teams, Batum and Lillard are far and away the individual season leaders, having played in 74 percent of their team's available minutes. In Round 1, Rockets and Blazers starters have combined to play 82 percent of available minutes.
The loss seemed to take a greater toll on the Rockets players, whose failing at the end of Game 4 has them fighting for their playoff lives. After the game, a stone-faced Patrick Beverley sat staring at the ground in front of him. The room quiet, Dwight Howard took a seat next to him. Whatever was said between the two, it didn't affect Beverley's outward expression. When Howard left the second-year guard to return to his own locker, Beverley remained in his seat, unwaveringly dispassionate.
Turnovers power Trailblazers
Turnovers Turn the Series
•Blazer's EdgeThe Portland Trail Blazers and Houston Rockets play yet another overtime thriller. Turnovers and a big rebounding turn-around propel Portland to victory and a 3-1 series lead.
Turnovers power Trailblazers
In front of reporters, Howard was noticeably quieter than he was on Friday. His answers said more to himself than to those asking the questions, Howard's demeanor was of a player who had given all he had to give and yet, watched his team come up short on the road.
"It's like we're giving games away," Howard mumbled. "We can't quit."
Where Portland remained consistent offensively, the Rockets slowed down toward the end of the game. Chandler Parsons, who was Houston's leading scorer through three quarters, didn't have a single bucket in the final period of regulation or in overtime. Parson's last field goal came with 3:40 to go in the third. As he addressed the media after the game, the distressed forward put the onus on himself for his miscues in the closing moments of Game 4.
"I've just got to continue to stay aggressive. I can't just sit back, I've got to be a part of the offense," Parsons said.
Even with home court in Game 5 and an adjusted Parsons, the Rockets have an uphill battle ahead of them. Houston will have to overcome the daunting fact that only eight teams have come back from a 3-1 deficit in the playoffs.
As the slow creep of confidence and veteran leadership binds the Blazers locker room, so too has the identity of a team that once held the NBA's best regular season record returned. Williams' three-pointer on Sunday personified Portland's central storyline, all wrapped up in one chaotic, exciting and unexpected play.
"That's us. That play was our team, our season. We don't give up,"Robin Lopez] says, 'Goonies never die.'"said. "Like [